Sunday, November 21, 2010


I read yet another article about Between the Acts and the notion of politics in Woolf’s work and life!

Michelle Pridmore-Brown begins her article by saying that in Woolf’s time a lot of people accused her and the Bloomsbury group of political quietism and that even now, critics have pointed out the lack of technology and its importance in the Bloomsbury canon. However, Pridmore-Brown claims that this is not true and that Woolf used technology, particularly in this last novel, and with its help commented upon the rise of fascism.
She claims that Woolf’s use of the gramophone in Between the Acts describes the notion of people being turned into a herd by technological means – people listening to one leader, one disembodied voice that distracts them from the real issues and reality and reduces them to the state of animals; the individual is liquidated, when this type of the act of listening is employed. This does, in fact, sound very much like the fascism in Germany, where Hitler is described as using all types of technological means to control the people, which is why he was such a “successful” dictator. However, Pridmore-Brown points out that Woolf is very interested in the act of listening, which short-circuits the herd impulse due to the individual act of interpretation. This is how, according to the article’s author, Woolf’s novel fights fascism; Pridmore-Brown quotes Woolf’s words, “thinking is my fighting”.

She goes on to talk about the novel being set in about the same time during which Woolf wrote it, that is, right before the outbreak of World War II and thus, the novel is permeated by the same kind of immediate doom, impending war that hung over Britain itself. The war is omnipresent. When La Trobe turns the mirrors onto the audience, Pridmore-Brown claims that the audience becomes politically implicated in what they have been observing, they become implicated in the rise of fascism and the imminent outbreak of war. But what they have been observing up to this point is very important as well. Pridmore-Brown claims that the objects La Trobe uses on stage look very beautiful from afar only, but she means to have them scrutinized, which emphasizes Woolf’s thinking about her own country, about the Hitler in England. She refuses to perpetuate the great myth of Britannia (which is also made clear through the reference to an actual rape of a British girl by British soldiers). Thus, both La Trobe and Woolf herself (despite the problematic relationship between the notions of an author and a dictator) become the antitheses to the fuhrer figure. In addition, La Trobe is uncharismatic and an outsider that destabilizes the standard dichotomies of gender and politics (she does not allow fixed emotions or identities, as Pridmore-Brown says) that can lead to war and systematized oppression such as fascism or patriarchy.

Pridmore-Brown also explores Woolf’s interest in the emerging sciences of radio waves and other particles that influence life (wires and waves), but are not clearly seen with the naked eye. Here she cites Woolf’s interest in Einstein’s theories as well as the scientist James Jeans, both of whom gave her the notion of an “insubstantial reality”, an unseen world, that one cannot actually perceive with the eye, but that exists around us and in which she was very interested (especially its relationship with the mind). Thus, Pridmore-Brown also explores the use of sound and noise in Woolf’s work, as previously described. The unity attained, or enforced, by the gramophone is not sustained in Woolf’s work, as the gramophone draws attention to itself, even if it is hidden. The imperfections in the sound, the static noise draw attention to the machine. The silences between the acts also become important.

Pridmore-Brown, Michelle. “1939 – 1940: Of Virginia Woolf, Gramophones, and Fascism.” PMLA 113.3 (1998): 408 – 421. JSTOR. Web.

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